Taking stock of 2013 and 2014

I’ve never been much for end-of-year traditions. New year’s resolutions, for example, seem like a reliable way of setting yourself up for the fall. Taking stock of the passing year, figuring out what worked and what didn’t, seems to be a sensible thing to do, though, irrespective of tradition.

As I was sitting in a car stuck in a blizzard the other day (yay, Iceland!), I began to see the past two years as a unified whole. Two years ago I went from having a day job in the software industry with a sideline in publishing to having a day job in publishing with no sideline. In effect, I lost a hobby and failed to replace it with anything productive or interesting. It was the single biggest change in my life since I moved back to the UK during the economic crash. Taking stock of 2014 alone is impossible because most of it is the second half of something that began in 2013.

Most of what has changed in my life over the past two years is boring: a new flat, a return to coffee drinking, a return to health (the old flat was infested with black mould), tinkering with my diet, that sort of thing. Most of it is mundane and not worth pondering.

The four areas of my life that do warrant some processing and stock-taking are writing, working in publishing, conferences, and social media.

Writing

I stopped writing at the start of 2013. Not completely, as the archives of this blog bear witness to, but I broke a long-standing writing habit.

Starting in my last year of junior college, I built a habit for writing for about an hour a day, or thereabouts. The writing projects have never been that specific. Often they’re just ramblings. Occasionally they’ve been fiction projects that I’ve written for myself. Almost always it’s something utterly disposable—not even fit for a blog post.

Sometimes I’ve skipped a day. Sometimes I’ve written for two hours instead of one. But, for the most part, it’s a habit I’ve kept for most of my adult life.

With three exceptions:

  1. When I first started my MA I didn’t have a computer for a few weeks, which put a crimp on my writing routine. It took me a long while to rebuild the habit.

  2. I stopped writing for a spell during my PhD. Despite what you might think, writing a PhD mostly consists of research, not of writing. The PhD didn’t just break my writing habit, it almost broke me, and it took a lot of work to get back into the routine (and to recover my mental health, but that’s a story for another day).

  3. And now, when I joined the publishing industry.

Every time I gave up the writing habit, I’ve entered a period of anxiety, stress, and general psychological misery, so from my personal experience there may well be some truth to the idea that writing regularly improves your mental health. The PhD in particular was the most horrible period of my life, and that includes the two times I’ve been hospitalised with acute life-threatening illnesses (meningitis as a child and flesh-eating bacteria as a teenager, the latter left me with a foot-long scar on my right leg).

The first two times I broke the habit, the causes were clear: no computer and PhD hell.

The causes of the latest hiatus are not that obvious.

A lot of it is simple burnout. Deciding to experiment with self-publishing and trying to write fiction for an audience took me down the wrong creative path and led to an artistic dead end.

On the non-fiction side I’ve burned out on blogging several times over the past few years, each time it made writing less and less enjoyable.

Of course, that might just have been the subject matter.

Writing about publishing is a singularly unrewarding activity since, paradoxically, it’s one of the few knowledge industries where writing has little to no impact on industry practice. If you look at software, or design, or even the craft of writing itself, writing about the practice plays a big role in shaping that practice.

But publishing, as a field and an art, pays absolutely no attention to writing and thinking about the craft of publishing. Instead it relies on arrogance, hearsay, and superstition. (Self-publishing is a partial exception to this, but only as long as you are unrelentingly positive about self-publishing in general, refrain from sounding even vaguely critical of the ‘leaders’ of the self-publishing movement, and never ever even intimate that traditional publishing might have a few good ideas to copy.)

And, yes, publishing a media artefact is a separate craft from creating that same artefact. It combines production, design, marketing, and sales into a unified whole. Unfortunately, unlike creators, publishers don’t seem to be interested in furthering their craft through discourse.

As I touched on above, the fiction burnout is easier to explain: I made a huge mistake. Instead of telling the stories I felt I needed to tell, and then figuring out if it had an audience or not, I decided on an audience first and then wrote for them. Turns out that just doesn’t work for me. (Doesn’t mean it won’t work for others, of course. People vary.)

The tactic I’ve been trying to use to break my hiatus is simple: write non-fiction for creators and fiction for myself and try to write something, no matter how trivial, every day. It’s been going in fits and starts, rebuilding a habit like that takes a long time, but I’m relatively optimistic.


Aside: my PhD thesis

I hate it. I really, really hate my PhD thesis. I was forced to abandon avenues of research that I thought (and still think) are important for storytelling in interactive media and to this day remain mostly unexplored. I was forced to drop theories I thought were more relevant than the ones I had to keep. I was forced to write in a style that is borderline incomprehensible to normal human beings. (I was literally criticised for writing in a too readable style.) I was forced to cater to the whims of people completely ignorant about interactive media and software in general in order to pass. I was repeatedly told that my writing was barely usable (a variation on “you will never be able to write without substantial editing” was a refrain I heard on more than one occasion, always from people who then followed up by never giving me any writing advice or specific feedback).

And, yes, if you’re guessing that it sounds like the people giving me feedback—who had the fate of my PhD in their hands—kept contradicting themselves, you’d be right. The fact that the various feedback and advice I was given was utterly at odds and irreconcilable made the PhD experience frustrating at best and pathological gaslighting at worst.

I hate my PhD thesis and I hated writing it. The experience was easily one of the worst of my life. It took me two years after finishing it before I felt even vaguely human again.

Now, the thesis itself isn’t as bad as it should have been, all things considered, but it is in my opinion severely compromised and you’d do yourself and me a favour if you destroyed every copy you got your hands on.

Everybody told me that it was just over-exposure, that I’d see the entire thing in a different light in a year or two when I had more of a distance.

It’s been eight years and I still hate it. I’ll still hate it if I live to be eighty.


Working in publishing

It’s quite easy to sum up my feelings about working in this industry: I enjoy the work but don’t care one jot about the industry itself. I don’t think I’d mind switching to solving exactly the same problems but in a different industry like, say, solving the document problems of corporate law firms or marine insurance companies.

(I actually did do a bit of work for a marine insurance company back in the day.)

People in the publishing industry talk a lot about how the joy of being involved with literature, good books, and interesting people makes up for the crap they have to take.

It doesn’t. And it doesn’t make up for it for a very simple reason: those aren’t our books. They belong to the authors and the publishing companies. The rest of us only own the paycheque we get handed every month. The ‘joy of publishing’ is a lie people tell themselves to excuse crap pay and crap working conditions.

It’d be a different story if the industry paid proper wages, or had their offices in less expensive cities, or let people work from home. Working and not getting a share of the proceeds is just what life is like for most people in a capitalist society. But the only way that deal is sustainable in the long run is if we get a liveable wage in return.

There needs to be at least a little bit of a balance. Industries with crap pay shouldn’t be based in the most expensive cities on the planet. Or, if they have to be based there, they shouldn’t force their low income employees to commute to said expensive hellholes on a daily basis.

(Or they could just pay more.)

Iceland is a low income country. The pay there in any given field is, by any given measure, generally among the lowest in northern Europe.

Too many of the people I’ve met in UK publishing are paid less than their counterparts in Iceland while at the same time being forced to live and work in one of the few cities in Europe that makes Reykjavík prices seem like dollar store bargains. Most of these people are more than qualified enough to easily get jobs in other, less romanticised, industries.

Publishers (and retailers, in case you’re planning on being an arse and pulling the irrelevant ‘what about Amazon?’ card) exploit authors, their employees, and their customers (see: collusion and price-fixing). I’m not particularly eager to be a part of that. I rather wouldn’t.

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that at the moment.

I enjoy the work I do for Unbound. I like the challenges of working on the digital side of publishing. I like the deal I have with Unbound and I trust that they’ll always try to do the right thing. But I do not enjoy the publishing industry, nor do I feel an emotional attachment to its output.

I don’t think of myself as being ‘in’ or a part of the publishing industry. That’s something that changed in 2014, after spending a few months feeling like I was ‘in’ publishing before being disgusted by the whole thing.


Aside: romanticised industries are dangerous industries

Some romanticisation of the workplace is an inevitable side effect of how we use storytelling to transmit information and knowledge.

The stories coworkers tell each other teach and reinforce the value systems that underlie each workplace. Every profession has stories that signal what is considered good (i.e. what’s considered ‘heroic’ performance). Transforming mundane work activities into jokes, myths, and fables is one of our most effective and most important teaching tools we have. Some romanticisation is an inevitable side effect.

However, some industries go further than others and they tend to have one thing in common: they are dependent on the creativity of their workers but are unwilling to pay a fair price for it.

In software the biggest culprits are games developers and VC-funded startups. All of the media industries fall into this category. A theme common to all of these industries is that the workers make sacrifices for a sense of ownership in the end product without receiving any actual rewards for that sacrifice. They get paid less and own less than people in other industries and mitigate their cognitive dissonance by mythologising their participation.

It isn’t a healthy way to lead your life.


Conferences

I don’t like conferences, never have. Not only am I an introvert but I also usually have no idea what’s going on in most social settings. I frequently misread situations, miss jokes (and all too often I take what’s said at face value, though I’m a lot better at that now than when I was younger), and misunderstand what’s being said because of some invisible goddamn signal that I can’t see. I also babble a lot.

(Social situations seem to operate on an expectation of pervasive communal telepathy.)

Of course, conferences are a good way to practice at the whole social thing. When something doesn’t come naturally, the only way to improve is to practice. Unfortunately conferences are also, on the whole, very expensive, time-consuming, and full of self-obsessed career people which makes them a particularly bad venue for this sort of practice. Given the price, they’re usually only worth it if somebody else, like an employer, is paying your way.

Connecting with people who you’d otherwise never interact with is why it’s often worthwhile. The problem is that I don’t know if the worthwhile bits make up for the sheer avalanche of nonsense that comes with these gatherings.

The easiest way for a conference organiser to make it worthwhile would be to dial down the nonsense but the only ones likely to do so already have. The rest just seem to get worse every year.

In the past I’ve always gone to conferences when I could do so affordably—i.e. somebody else was paying in part or in full—but I’m changing that policy in 2015. I’m going to actively avoid conferences unless they are unusually relevant or interesting (like ebookcraft).


Social media

Twitter is terrifyingly addictive but I’m not sure what value I get out of it. It’s a decent source of links to whatever seems to catch the fancy of the people I follow. But people also tend to all tweet the same links at the same time. Every week, the most interesting and engaging web pages I read come from the feeds I subscribe to in my feed reader. Twitter is a nice source of casual social interactions: jokes, banter, and simple conversation. It’s also, quite simply, incapable of being a platform for serious discussion about anything worthwhile.

Which would be all well and good (not everything has to be deep) if it weren’t for two things:

  1. Twitter has over the past two years been the single biggest source of negative social interactions in my life.

  2. On Twitter I frequently witness people I know or follow get drenched in a flood of toxic remarks, hostility, or outright abuse. Kathy Sierra is the biggest example from the year but I see it in small ways every day.

The last time I saw this many people leave a social network because of a hostile atmosphere was when Google was aggressively enforcing the G+ real names policy. The risk that Twitter is facing isn’t that people will leave en masse but that the engagement of those who aren’t affluent white males will peter out slowly as the more interesting and productive tweeters get driven off.

Facebook is only useful for one thing, as far as I can tell: sharing photos with your relatives. It’s crap (and getting worse) for marketing. It’s crap for building a social network with your peers (professional or not). It’s crap for following the news and links that people find interesting (the stream is too filtered). So, I’m not likely to be using that.

Tumblr is a nice source of triviality and silliness. It’s also an easy way to keep up with the various online fandoms. It makes for a nice occasional break over the day. So, no problems there, really.

Linkedin I just don’t use. They annoy me with emails occasionally. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any value from it whatsoever.

That’s it. Out of the various different social media I’ve had the occasion to use, Tumblr remains the most trivial (and fun) and Twitter remains the most engaging and exhausting. Unless Twitter figures out some new ways of stemming the tide of toxicity, I don’t have high hopes for its future or of my use of it.


Aside: the social world of books

It’s been a tough year for online book communities. Authors have gone bonkers. Discussions have become more adversarial. Abuse has increased. People are getting tired. They’re taking their blogs and their twitter accounts private.

But the kicker is the sense of betrayal. Running through these private tweets and blog posts is the feeling of being let down by authors and publishers—not only that they should have been helping make the social world of books a safer place but that they have actively made it worse. The marketing and sales forces of the publishing industry (self- or traditional) have invaded and coopted the online space inhabited by readers. Trying to control the organically grown communities of the various readerships was just too lucrative for them to realise that what they were doing was the digital equivalent of strip-mining. It can only end with an empty pit barren of life.

Publishers (again, self- or traditional) need to start interacting with reader spaces in ways that preserve the boundaries between publishing and reading and need to figure out how to feed and nurture those spaces without threatening or compromising them.

It can be done.


Overall

Over the past two years, the two biggest sources of negative experiences in my live have been Twitter and writing/speaking about the publishing industry.

The two biggest sources of negativity for the two years before that were also Twitter and the publishing industry, but back then it was more manageable because working in publishing was only a sideline for me.

I think I’ve figured out a routine for managing Twitter: regular and aggressive muting and unfollowing.

On the publishing industry side I think I’ll be fine as long as Unbound continues to chart its own course and as long as I continue to avoid interacting with the larger industry.

You know the old joke about not doing the thing that causes you pain? Good advice that.

Basically, those two things are likelier than others to cause me anxiety so I should do less of them.

And rebuilding the old writing habit is, of course, just something I’ll have to work on.